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Herefordshire Council (20 010 493)

Category : Children's care services > Fostering

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 13 Aug 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: The Council was at fault for the way it handled Mr X and Mrs Z’s fostering placement. Had the Council provided them with all the relevant information before the placement began they would not have agreed to proceed. The Council has agreed to apologise to Mr X and Mrs Z and make a payment to recognise the distress caused.

The complaint

  1. The complainants, whom I refer to as Mr X and Mrs Z, complain about the way the Council handled a fostering placement, namely:
    1. The Council did not provide them with all the relevant information about the child before the placement or tell them the child’s parents were seeking reunification.
    2. The fostering placement and reunification process was disruptive and prolonged, and the Council did not consider any suggestions or requests Mr X or Mrs Z made.
  2. Mr X and Mrs Z say their family have suffered a lot of stress during the fostering placement and had he known the full story he would not have taken on the fostering placement.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word fault to refer to these. We must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. I refer to this as ‘injustice’. If there has been fault which has caused an injustice, we may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1), as amended)
  2. If we are satisfied with a council’s actions or proposed actions, we can complete our investigation and issue a decision statement. (Local Government Act 1974, section 30(1B) and 34H(i), as amended)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. As part of this investigation I considered the complaint by the complainants and the Council’s responses. I discussed the complaint with Mr X over the telephone. I made enquires with the Council and considered the information received in response. I sent a draft of this decision to Mr X and Mrs Z and the Council for comments.
  2. Under our information sharing agreement, we will share this decision with the Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills (Ofsted).

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What I found

  1. Fostering Services National Minimum Standards (2011) says foster carers have a right to full information about a child they foster. Information provided should be up to date and include any recent significant events, to help carers understand and predict the child’s needs and behaviours. Information provided should also be in clear, comprehensive written form.
  2. The Council’s Supervision and Support of Foster Carers Procedure says a child’s social worker must give the foster family full information about children about to be placed, including any abuse or neglect and the reason for the placement, the child's educational, medical, religious, racial, linguistic and cultural needs.
  3. The social worker should also discuss issues relevant to contact with birth parents and other family members and provide foster carers with breaks from caring as appropriate, which must meet the needs of placed children.
  4. The Council’s fostering handbook says the Council should offer foster carers practical support including financial help to support a child having contact with their birth family.

What happened

  1. In November 2019 Mr X and Mrs Z agreed to foster Y. Mr X said the Council told him this was a long-term placement. Y previously lived with another foster family, but the placement had broken down. At this time Y had six contact sessions with his birth family each year.
  2. Y’s placement with Mr X and Mrs Z did not start until 16 December 2019 as registration issues with their fostering agency needed resolved. In the meantime Y went to live with respite carers.
  3. The Council said a placement meeting took place on 18 December 2019 which mentioned the Council will carry out an assessment in the new year to see if Y can reunify with his birth parents. Mr X disputes this and said neither he nor Mrs Z attended this meeting and neither he nor his fostering agency has a record of the meeting.
  4. On 30 December 2019 the social worker visited Mr X, Mrs Z and Y. Mr X said he discussed the issue of Y’s birth parents but was at no time told anything about reunification.
  5. In January 2020 Mr X exchanged emails with the social worker where he questioned the contact arrangements with Y’s birth parents, however he was not told anything about a reunification assessment with Y’s birth parents.
  6. On 29 January 2020 the social worker emailed Mr X telling him Children’s Services are going to carry out an assessment to see whether Y should return to live with his birth parents. Mr X said this was the first he or Mrs Z had heard of a reunification assessment.
  7. As part of the reunification assessment the Council put in place contact sessions between Y and his birth parents in February 2020. These took place every fortnight. Mr X reported Y’s behaviour was increasingly challenging before and after the contact sessions.
  8. On 16 March 2020 the Council held a Looked After Child (LAC) review meeting. Mr X submitted a statement prior to the meeting where he raised concerns about the contact sessions and reunification process.
  9. The minutes of the LAC review meeting show the Council decided to carry out an assessment to see whether Y could go into the care of the birth parents. Y’s birth parents requested Y live with them due to concerns about the number of times Y has moved placements. Mr X raised concerns about Y being left in a state of limbo while the assessment is completed. The minutes also said the Council would put on hold the increased contact between Y and the birth parents for weeks or months, due to the Coronavirus lockdown.
  10. On 24 March 2020 the Council suggested the contact sessions between Y and the birth parents take place via WhatsApp at Mr X and Mrs Z’s home and Mr X supervise the contact and provide reports. Mr X rejected this idea as he did not want to give his personal telephone number to the birth parents and wanted his home to remain a safe place for Y. Mr X also did not think he was qualified to assess the contact as it was part of a reunification assessment, not standard family contact.
  11. Mr X and Mrs Z requested the Council suspend the reunification assessment due to the Coronavirus restrictions. At the end of March 2020 the Council decided to put in place fortnightly contact sessions between Y and the birth parents via WhatsApp. Mr X and Mrs Z’s fostering agency agreed to facilitate these sessions. This replaced the six contact sessions per year which were in place previously. Mr X was expected to provide reports following each session. These contact sessions started in April 2020 and Mr X reported to the Council Y’s behaviour was becoming violent after the sessions.
  12. On 21 April 2020 Mr X and Mrs Z made a complaint to the Council. They said the Council asked them to provide a long-term home for Y but are now pursuing a reunification assessment. They also raised concerns about the social worker being biased towards Y’s birth parents and their concerns not being raised at the LAC review. Mr X and Mrs Z said the Council has not provided them with adequate information about the reunification assessment process or the duration and they are concerned about the impact this will have on Y. Mr X and Mrs Z also raised concerns about the contact sessions taking place at their home with no one from the Council to monitor and report on the sessions.
  13. In May 2020 Mr X continued to report the difficulties with the WhatsApp contact sessions between Y and the birth parents and his discomfort at attending these.
  14. On 26 May 2020 the Council responded to Mr X and Mrs Z’s complaint. The Council said:
        • It must consider whether Y can reunify with his parents especially if they have made lifestyle changes.
        • The social worker was not biased and would not sign off a care plan if she did not agree with its contents as she could have to defend it in court.
        • The Council is due to complete the children and family assessment by 30 July 2020. The LAC review on 16 March 2020 discussed a change in Y’s care plan and decided the social worker would complete a robust assessment.
        • The Independent Review Officer read out Mr X’s views at the LAC review meeting, so they were heard.
        • The Council is currently using video contact for the family sessions due to Coronavirus restrictions.
  15. Mr X and Mrs Z decided not to pursue the complaint further at this time even though they were dissatisfied with the Council’s response as they wanted to focus on Y.
  16. In June 2020 Mr X asked the Council several times for respite care for Y as Y’s behaviour was becoming increasingly challenging. Mr X also continued to report his concerns about the WhatsApp contact sessions and his continued presence at these.
  17. In July 2020 the Council postponed Y’s LAC review meeting until 13 August 2020. Mr X also asked the Council for respite care to relieve the pressure on Y’s placement. The social worker told Mr X Y could attend summer clubs, however Mr X said these were closed due to the Coronavirus restrictions.
  18. On 9 July 2020 Mr X and Mrs Z attended a meeting with the Council via zoom. Mr X said the Council did not listen to their concerns and they were put on mute by the Council. He says he received no minutes from this meeting.
  19. On 14 July 2020 the Council decided to put in place four direct contact sessions between Y and the birth parents. Mr X reported the first three sessions went well but the Council cancelled the final session.
  20. In late July 2020 Mr X and Mrs Z’s fostering agency organised a programme of support activities to help them and relieve some of the pressure on the placement.
  21. The Council competed the children and family assessment for Y on 31 July 2020 and recommended reunification with the birth parents.
  22. On 5 August 2020, Mr X and Mrs Z gave notice on the placement with Y. Mr X said the situation at his home had become intolerable and he felt he had to give notice to end the placement as he was concerned the reunification process did not have a fixed end. This was based on Mr X and Mrs Z’s view the reunification plan was not final.
  23. On 13 August 2020 the Council held a LAC review meeting. This decided Y would return to the birth parents on 21 or 26 August 2020 following the children and family assessment which recommended Y could return to the birth parents.
  24. On 21 August 2020 Y left Mr X and Mrs Z’s care and then subsequently moved to live with the birth parents a few days later.

Mr X’s complaint

  1. On 14 November 2020 Mr X and Mrs Z made a formal complaint to the Council about how it handled the fostering placement. Among their concerns were:
        • The planning/assessment process used when placing Y with them was not adequate. Mr X and Mrs Z said they were not given adequate information about the breakdown of Y’s previous placement and they were told their placement would be long term.
        • The Council did not tell Y’s parents his previous placement had broken down before placing him with Mr X and Mrs Z.
        • They are concerned the Council placed Y with them as a long-term placement after the birth parents requested reunification.
        • They were unaware of the intention to implement a reunification process until January 2020 but subsequently came to understand the Council made the decision to go ahead with this process in December 2019.
        • The Council ignored the agreements made at the LAC review in March 2020 and put in place further contact with the birth parents.
        • The social worker said she was biased to the parents at the LAC review in March 2020.
        • They were unhappy with the WhatsApp contact sessions due to the negative effects on Y. Mr X said the Council ignored his concerns about these sessions.
  2. On 1 December 2020 the Council responded to the complaint. The Council said:
        • The placement request form completed by the social worker and given to Mr X and Mrs Z’s fostering agency mentions several reasons why Y’s previous placement broke down. The Council said the placement was not immediate but there was a period of introductions between 8 November and 16 December 2019.
        • When the Council placed Y with Mr X and Mrs Z the placement was long-term. The Council said a meeting was held on 18 December 2019 with the fostering agency and Mr X and Mrs Z. Within the placement plan it said the Council will complete an assessment of Y’s birth parents in 2020 to assess whether Y could live with them. The minutes of the 18 December 2020 meeting state this information about reunification was shared with Mr X and Mrs Z.
        • The LAC review minutes in March 2020 show Mr X’s concerns were recorded. The recommendations at the LAC review were not disregarded and the Council set up increased contact between Y and the birth parents as part of the reunification assessment. The Council set up WhatsApp contact due to Coronavirus restrictions.
        • The social worker has a different recollection about what was said to the birth parents at the LAC meeting.
        • The Council continued to use WhatsApp contact between Y and the birth parents due to the pandemic. The Council said it had to work out how best to progress care plans, the reunification assessment and minimise delays for Y. Once face to face contact was possible the Council put this in place.
  3. Mr X and Mrs Z responded to the Council’s findings about their complaint. They asked the Council to confirm when the birth parents requested reunification with Y. They also asked the Council to confirm whether it included the WhatsApp reports as part of the reunification assessment.
  4. The Council provided its final response to the complaint on 21 December 2020. The Council confirmed Y’s birth parents requested reunification around 23 October 2019. The Council apologised for not letting Mr X and Mrs Z know about this during the placement planning process. The Council also said a foster placement would only become long-term following a formal matching assessment. This takes place usually between 9-12 months. The Council said it would keep under review if a child in care can be reunified with their birth parents. The Council confirmed it considered the reports about the WhatsApp sessions in its reunification assessment.

Analysis

Complaint a) The Council did not provide Mr X and Mrs Z with all the relevant information about the child before the placement

  1. The Council did not tell Mr X or Mrs Z about Y’s birth parents request for reunification prior to the fostering placement starting. This is fault. The Council said Y’s birth parents requested reunification around 23 October 2019, therefore there was the opportunity to tell them about Y’s birth parents’ request before they decided to foster Y.
  2. The Council said the minutes of a meeting from 18 December 2018 say information about reunification was shared with Mr X and Mrs Z. They both dispute attending this meeting and have no record of this. In addition, email correspondence from 29 January 2020 suggests Mr X or Mrs Z were not aware of a proposed reunification assessment until this date. Even if the Council had provided Mr X and Mrs Z with information about reunification following 18 December 2019, this is still after the fostering placement started. On balance I am satisfied Mr X and Mrs Z did not know about a reunification assessment until the social worker emailed Mr X on 29 January 2020.
  3. As the Council was at fault I need to consider whether this caused injustice. Failure to provide Mr X and Mrs Z with details about Y’s birth parents request for reunification resulted in them accepting the fostering placement. If they had known the Council were going to carry out a reunification assessment they would not have accepted the placement. Mr X, Mrs Z and their family experienced challenges with Y’s behaviour during the placement and this affected the relationship with their other children.
  4. The Council has apologised and accepted it should have told them about reunification earlier. I welcome the Council’s apology but it does not go far enough to remedy the distress caused to Mr X and Mrs Z’s family as a result of taking on the fostering placement.

Complaint b) The fostering placement and reunification process was disruptive and prolonged, and the Council did not consider any suggestions or requests Mr X and Mrs Z made.

  1. Once Y’s parents requested reunification it was reasonable for the Council to consider this and assess whether they were suitable carers for Y. There were difficulties with the assessment mainly due to restrictions in place due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
  2. I recognise Mr X and Mrs Z wanted the assessment suspended because of the Coronavirus pandemic, however it was up to the Council to decide how to progress the assessment considering the restrictions in place.
  3. The Council decided to put in place WhatsApp contact sessions. There are records of Mr X raising several concerns about the WhatsApp sessions from April to July 2020. Mr X said he did not think he was qualified to report on the sessions and found them difficult. He also said Y’s behaviour deteriorated into violent behaviour following the sessions.
  4. While Mr X has raised issues about the WhatsApp sessions, I cannot see that he was offered any support following his concerns. It was clear he found them difficult and disruptive. This is fault. The Council’s fostering handbook says the Council should offer a foster carer help with birth family contact.
  5. I recognise the Coronavirus pandemic brought difficulties to the Council when carrying out assessments and with family contact time. However the Council could have explored other options for contact sessions or considered putting in place extra support for Mr X considering his concerns.
  6. Mr X also requested respite as Y’s placement was becoming strained and his behaviour difficult to manage. The Council did not put in place respite for Mr X and Mrs Z and suggested Y attend summer clubs which Mr X said were closed due to the pandemic. This is also fault. As a result Mr X, Mrs Y and their family struggled to manage Y’s behaviour which has impacted on their family life.

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Agreed action

  1. Within one month of my final decision, the Council agreed to carry out the following and provide evidence to the Ombudsman it has done so:
        • Apologise to Mr X and Mrs Z for not providing respite support or for considering further support with the contact sessions.
        • Pay Mr X and Mrs Z £600 in recognition of the distress caused by the faults identified in this statement.
        • Remind staff to ensure that prior to a fostering placement, all relevant information about a child is provided to prospective fostering parents.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation and found there was fault by the Council which caused injustice to Mr X and Mrs Z. The Council has agreed to the above actions to remedy the injustice caused.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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